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Turning over a new leaf

กกกกGreen tea with walnut and lettuce, a healthy and delicious dish offered in Beijing's Lao She Teahouse.

It is only in recent years, though, that restaurants have started to experiment with innovative tea dishes. Lao She Teahouse, Beijing's No 1 teahouse, can count more than 60 tea-related dishes in its repertoire and has already put 30 of them on its menu. Chef Li Zhiqiang says his aim is to create something different - that "really infuses tea into the dish".

"We choose quality ingredients and great teas," he says. "Then we consider how the tea and food pair up without much loss of flavor."

One good match is Qimen black tea with sea cucumber. "The black tea takes away the seafood's unpleasant smell, gives the dish a mild tea fragrance and a better hue," Li says. "Besides, black tea counterbalances the cold nature of seafood."

Another unusual blend is that of mutton and white tea. "The hot nature of mutton may generate excessive heat in the body. White tea helps dissipate the heat, dissolves harmful elements and adds moisture."

The four most common ways of combining tea and food are: adding the fresh tea leaves directly into the dish; pouring the tea into the dish; adding powdered or ground tea leaves to the dish; and using tea to smoke the food.

"Tea absorbs the grease and its nutritional elements enhance the value of the food," Li says. Dishes that use tea leave one with a much lighter feeling in the stomach.

Generally speaking, green tea is well suited to light dishes. Black tea is best used as a soup or for smoking. Jasmine tea has a lingering fragrance and goes well with seafood. Oolong is relatively strong and is used with rich foods.

But matching food with tea is not easy, says Li. "Many teas taste too light to make a significant difference to a dish. Besides, tea can generate chemical reactions with anything containing iron and do not dissolve in protein."

Therefore, chefs do a lot of experimenting before coming up with the right match. They also make lighter teas, such as green tea and Tieguanyin, on the spot, so that the fragrance keeps even after heating or after being stood for a long time.

This has led to many creative dishes. Lao She Teahouse makes a Peking roast duck with jasmine tea flavor. Green T. House smokes duck breast with Yunnan Dianhong black tea, making for quite a memorable dish. Wu Yu Tai Family Cuisine makes a dish in which one first drinks Longjing green tea, and then eats the tender shrimp with the tea flavor still on the palate. The restaurant also pairs goose liver with Kuding bitter tea.